The actress sitting opposite me at a fancy restaurant in central London is wearing a super-glam jumpsuit and has just broken into song across the table before laughing uproariously. Yet our fellow diners don’t give her a second glance. This seems surprising, since Jessie Buckley has starred in two of the biggest TV hits of the last two years – BBC1’s War and Peace and Taboo – and had a two-year relationship with James Norton, which ensured she was often photographed hand-in-hand with him in the tabloid press.
She insists, however, that, “No one ever recognises me. Once in a blue moon somebody might say something, but it’s rare. I get on the Tube, I go to the cinema, I have flatmates who aren’t in the business; it’s all completely normal.”
Buckley, 28, is the ultimate example of a familiar face you can’t quite place. And she should enjoy her anonymity while it lasts, because she’s on the cusp of becoming huge; she’s back on BBC1 this week, in a new Sunday night adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel The Woman in White .
She first appeared on our screens ten years ago in the BBC show I’d Do Anything, where she reduced Andrew Lloyd Webber to tears during his search for a Nancy for his new West End version of Oliver!. She came second in the competition, but Cameron Macintosh, who produced Oliver!, took her under his wing and helped her get onto a short Shakespeare course at Rada, where she fell in love with the Bard.
For the next few years Buckley put her head down, worked hard – she ended up enrolling in a three year course at Rada, graduating in 2013 – and polished off the rough edges to become the actor Lloyd Webber and Macintosh knew she could be, appearing in A Little Night Music with Maureen Lipman and The Tempest with Roger Allam at the Globe.
When Buckley re-emerged on our screens two years ago as Marya Bolkonskaya in BBC1’s War and Peace, the Irish accent had been transformed, the gawky posture improved and the curls tamed. A classical actress was born.
“I could have gone down a totally different trajectory,” Buckley admits. “I originally wanted to do musicals because that’s what I grew up with, but after the Shakespeare course, I felt a question had been posed that I needed to answer. All the things I’ve originally wanted to do haven’t worked out, but better things have happened by mistake.
“I feel really lucky to have had War and Peace as my first big telly job. I was playing this incredible character and we were shooting in Catherine the Great’s palace, near St Petersburg, in the winter, when the river was frozen. It was a dream. I still can’t believe it. I wanted to soak up every last minute.”
She met Norton on set, where the pair played brother and sister. They split up last summer and have both been tight-lipped on the subject, although Buckley does answer my question about him, albeit a little awkwardly. “Obviously [talking about him] isn’t something I’m comfortable with,” she says. “I’m private. I can’t help who I fall in love with. It’s about the person. He’s a great guy, and we’re great friends, and I’m really grateful it happened.”
Since War and Peace, both actors have gone from strength to strength. Yet she hasn’t become totally polished. In all her roles, she still retains the sparkle and the distinctive grin that caught the eye of Lloyd Webber, I suggest. “Wily and feral, you mean?” she laughs. “I suppose I have. It’s good, though, isn’t it? I’m glad I haven’t changed too much. I’d hate to become clean. You know, when you’re talking to some – one and they’re not actually talking to you, they’re presenting a version of themselves that’s successful, and it’s not real. I want to be human.”
Buckley grew up in Killarney, County Kerry, the oldest of five children, with a bar manager father and harpist mother. After discovering the local am-dram group, 18-year-old Buckley applied for Lloyd Webber’s show “on a whim” after failing to get into the Guildford School of Drama. She admits that at the time she was taking a year off school, suffering “really badly” from depression. “That age, it’s a funny time in life, becoming a woman,” she says. “I suppose my way of channelling that was singing, and that was a saviour in many ways. I felt like I needed it. I was sad. I was really sad.”
“The adrenaline rush of being in that show got me through and for a little while I could forget all [the sadness], but after the show finished, I really hit that low point again. I was in London, in a big city by myself, and still not well because I’d just put a plaster over it.” Did she have therapy to help her through those days? “Yes! Of course I did,” she laughs. “Are you joking?”
Buckley’s honesty will come as no surprise to anybody who has watched her perform. She has a rawness that floats incredibly close to the surface, never more so than in her upcoming first big film release, the British thriller Beast (in cinemas from Friday 27 April), which has already received rave reviews.
In The Woman in White, she also steals the show as the culottes-wearing, progressive Marian, who tries to intervene when her rich half-sister Laura is married off to the spectacularly creepy Sir Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott). “Because I’ve got younger sisters, I want to impart on them the possibility of being a strong woman in whatever role I choose,” she says. “Strength, when I was growing up, looked like a suit, or something quite harsh. But the people who’ve inspired me have allowed themselves to be everything, and not compartmentalised themselves.”
She names Hollywood’s current golden woman Frances McDormand as an inspiration, and says she “100 per cent” supports the #MeToo movement sparked by the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the Time’s Up campaign. “It’s ridiculous that Claire Foy got paid less than Matt Smith on The Crown. That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. We have a lot of changes to make, although I feel we need a dialogue between men and women. The only way we’re going to make progress is by talking, not just wagging a finger.”
“There are fingers that need to be wagged, but there are also good men out there. I just feel like we all need to relearn how to respect each other.” Has she herself seen situations that have made her uncomfortable in the acting world? “Yes, I’ve observed stuff, and I’ve been in certain situations,” she says. “But I’ve never been sexually harassed. I think anybody who has abused their power is disgusting and I think there should be justice for people who have been victims.”
And is she the type of person who will call out anything in a script that seems sexist, or unnecessarily sexy? “I have done that. I’m sure they get annoyed with me saying, ‘I don’t understand why this girl is in a skirt’, but it’s about choice. If others choose to play that, I would 100 per cent respect them, but it’s not for me.”
Further success beckons. Buckley is currently filming Judy, playing an assistant to Renée Zellweger’s Judy Garland in a Britishmade biopic of the troubled singer (“I can’t even really look at Renée at the moment, I feel too awkward!”) and has just wrapped on The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, which also stars Robert Downey Jr, Emma Thompson, Marion Cotillard and Ralph Fiennes. But it’s hard to picture her fitting in with the LA set. She is hilarious, incredibly sweary and dives into the bread basket with gusto – and while she does resist the offer of a glass of wine it’s only after seeming to wrestle with temptation for a few seconds. Could she ever conform enough to move to Hollywood?
“Conformity? Ugh! Disgusting,” she laughs. “I don’t think I’ll ever move, but I have an American agent and I put myself up for stuff. America isn’t the holy grail. I think what we do brilliantly [in the UK] is an excavation of something that’s going on socially, or among us.”
“I’ve no interest in doing a Marvel film, for example. I don’t think I’d ever get asked, anyway. No one’s going to ask me to get into a leather catsuit any time soon, are they? I’ll be a wonderful woman, but I won’t be Wonder Woman!”
This article was originally published in April 2018